Theme: A Disaster!
Once, while taking a bus trip from Galesburg, Illinois to Columbus, Ohio, I overhead the people in the seats ahead of me rhapsodizing about the luxuries of train travel (especially as compared to a crammed greyhound bus where the passenger beside me took up her seat and half of mine.)
“You can drink,” one person said. “And smoke!” I don’t think this was necessarily true, but the implications were clear. Trains, of the clean, modern, Amtrak variety, were comfortable and fun.
Say it ain’t so.
Trains were a miracle of modern travel in the mid 1800’s up until the invention of the automobile in the early 1900’s. They revolutionized the way goods and people were transported and opened up the Western frontier to civilization. For example, the city of Seattle, populated by less than 10000 people in 1880 would see over 237,000 residents in the space of just 30 years.
Two of the best train disaster books I have read (and I’ve read three) took place 43 years apart, bracketing that golden age of train travel. In The Angola Horror, author Charity Vogel points out that train travel in 1867 was decidedly unglamorous, citing the filthy conditions, the floors varnished in tobacco spit, and the poor heating systems that would ultimately compound the tragedy that took place on a bridge near a little hamlet called Angola in New York.
When the bridge collapsed, causing two passenger cars to plummet into the ravine below, the stoves heating the cars tumbled along with the occupants, starting fires that quickly raged into blazing infernos. People lucky enough to survive the fall were promptly burned to death. 49 people would lose their lives, and identification of the victims, charred beyond recognition, proved nearly impossible.
Fast forward four decades, and despite their dangers, trains had cracked opened the impenetrable wilderness that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. Railroads had even blazed a path through the range known as the “Last Mountains,” the Cascades. But nature proved to be an unforgiving and vehement adversary. In February of 1910, the worst snowstorm in decades assailed the Cascades, numerous snowslides stranding a passenger train and mail car in a tiny stop named Wellington, nestled high in Stevens Pass. For a week, railroaders labored to clear the tracks while the stranded trains waited, parked beneath an intimidating slope 1000 feet high and stubbled with the remains of burned out timber.
As the temperature fluctuated and the wind howled, the inevitable (in hindsight) happened. A tsunami of snow roared down the mountain, sweeping away the trains with sleeping passengers and crew inside, in what became the deadliest avalanche in history. 96 people died.
Both books investigate a time when modernity was accelerating our lives into the future, dispelling old fears and creating new ones. Some lives ended in fire, some in ice, and as we banish one method of death, we invent a new one. Automobiles and airplanes relegated trains to the sideline as a mode of transportation, bringing fresh horrors of their own. Still, these little slices of history remind us of the prices we pay for our convenience.
*forecast calls for snow
- Although Wellington is no more, there’s a trail along the old rails for anyone wanting to experience a piece of history. It’s only 2 1/2 hours from me, so I plan on checking it out next summer.
- Booknado 2016 is in the history books! 2017 is currently being written. What wonders does it hold in store? I wonder…